ST. GEORGE — The Virgin River, Washington County’s primary water source, is near its lowest level in recorded history. The current state of the river, which has seen generally declining flows for the past 15 years, is the main symptom of Washington County’s ongoing drought.
“There is no question, we’re in a really bad drought,” Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Ron Thompson said.
Thompson has been monitoring Washington County water data and river levels since the 1980s. He said he’s never seen the river lower than it is right now. To put it into perspective, this year’s base Virgin River flow up to this point is approximately 30 percent less than usual, Thompson said.
The most current compilation of official water data was released in a Utah Climate and Water Report June 1. According to the report, the Virgin River system’s base river flow has only been lower one time in recorded history. However, this year’s conditions are only slightly better than the drought year 15 years ago. On a 100-point scale – 100 being the wettest year to date and zero being the driest year to date – currently we’re at a 7, and we’re in the midst of the second driest year to date, only behind 1989.
The Virgin River system in Washington County has less total surface water availability than it has had in 15 years, according to the water report compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Total surface water availability is a combination of water levels in the river systems and reservoirs in the county.
This year, the Virgin River system had a particularly low snowpack. In March, snowpack for southwest Utah was reported at 46 percent of normal.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a year like this where there just wasn’t snowpack,” Thompson said.
In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a state of natural disaster in various counties across Utah and 10 other states due to prolonged drought conditions. Twelve counties were listed in Utah, including Washington, Iron, Kane and San Juan.
Besides one major snowstorm in December 2013, the area hardly received any precipitation this past winter, Thompson said, other than a few little rainstorms.
Luckily, May brought showers. May was an unusually wet month as far as precipitation goes – 142 percent above average, according to the report. Now, the grass and the watershed looks good, Thompson said, but still the stream flows are really low all across the Virgin River system.
Stream flow is important, since the majority of Washington County’s population relies almost solely on the Virgin River for water. However, the population does get a small portion of water from the Santa Clara River.
The Santa Clara River is dependent almost solely on the snowpack of Pine Valley Mountain. The Virgin River flow is dependent on snowpack from areas like Cedar Mountain, Kolob and Webster Flat. These high elevation areas all drain back down through the north and east forks of the Virgin River – and this past winter’s snowpack has delivered a measly stream flow.
The low flow is no surprise to Thompson, who said we’ve seen a clear downward trend in Virgin River water levels for the past 15 years. In fact, over that span of time, the median Virgin River flow has gone down almost 40 cubic feet per second, or CFS, Thompson said. CFS is a measurement used when tracking streamflow. One CFS translates to about 450 gallons of flow a minute.
“There’s probably more than enough (water) for this year and next,” Thompson told the St. George City Council during its March 6 meeting. Still, he added, he does not expect that any reservoir will be full this year.
Upon encouragement from the water district, St. George City recently implemented mandatory water restrictions, which is part of Stage 1 of its drought management plan.
“We’d like to encourage people to conserve,” Thompson said. “I think that when you’re in these kinds of situations we need people to work with us and save as much water as possible.”
The district’s website includes resources to help local property owners conserve water. The district is also offering free water checks to residents who want customized input on how to best conserve water at their residences.
Also tracked in the Utah Climate and Water report for Washington County:
- Seasonal precipitation accumulation, which is 58 percent of average
- Soil moisture, which is at 57 percent of average compared to 53 percent last year
- Total reservoir storage, which is at 44 percent of capacity compared to 48 percent last year
- WCWCD water saving tips
- WCWCD Tips, Links and More related to water conservation
- Utah Division of Water Resources’ water conservation website
- Free water checks for customizing irrigation
- St. George implements drought management water restrictions
- Wildland firefighters say snowpack may bring busy fire season; wildfire science
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